The Most Likely Landing Spots for Le'Veon Bell
As the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to fall apart in front of our eyes, star running back Le'Veon Bell continues his holdout. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the team is listening to trade offers for the 26-year-old running back.
Following a 2013 rookie season in which he posted strong numbers (over 1,200 yards from scrimmage), Bell broke out with a season of 2,215 yards from scrimmage that put him on the map as an elite runner.
With five seasons and almost 8,000 yards from scrimmage under his belt, there is no doubt that Bell is one of the best running backs in the game. The Steelers don't want to pay him as such, though, opting instead to get younger at the position with James Conner while using the franchise tag to keep Bell on the roster without making a long-term commitment to him.
The impasse will come to an end soon as Bell forfeits over $850,000 for every week he misses. The Steelers are ready to move on but need a trade partner willing to take on the $12 million that Bell is still owed this season.
Who can afford Bell? Which teams have a realistic chance to trade for him? The four teams with a shot are listed from least likely to most likely.
But first, let's address a few honorable mentions.
Of those eight teams, there are some that don't need Bell. At least not on paper. Here are those teams:
The Browns are interesting because John Dorsey is completely remaking the roster, but for two reasons they are not a realistic destination. The Steelers won't trade Bell within the division, and the Browns have a trio of good backs in Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson Jr. and Nick Chubb. They don't need Bell.
The Titans aren't getting great production from Derrick Henry and free-agent signee Dion Lewis is more of a third-down back, but that doesn't mean general manager Jon Robinson would mortgage his draft future for another running back in Le'Veon Bell.
This just won't happen. The Cowboys have issues on offense, but not because of a lack of talent at running back. Ezekiel Elliott is basically a younger, cheaper version of Bell. He might also be the next superstar running back in Bell's shoes when his contract expires at the end of the 2020 season (assuming his fifth-year option is picked up).
The only caveat here would be if the Jaguars were to suddenly lose Leonard Fournette for the year. The roster is thin at running back with only Fournette and T.J. Yeldon as threats at running back, so a season-ending injury could tip the Jaguars' hands to rent Bell for the rest of this season and make a Super Bowl push. It's unlikely, though.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers as a serious trade option for Le'Veon Bell started because of an injury to Jerick McKinnon. The 49ers as a player for Bell may have ended because of another injury—this one to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Bell is a massive upgrade over McKinnon as a running back and the 49ers can afford him, but will the front office go all-in on the 2018 season now that Garoppolo is lost to a season-ending injury?
There are two ways to look at this:
1. The 49ers would want Bell only as a one-year rental for the 2018 season and would roll with McKinnon once healthy in 2019.
2. The 49ers would cut McKinnon, whose salary is only $4.3 next season, and go with Bell long-term.
If general manager John Lynch wants Bell as his long-term bell cow, option No. 2 makes sense. The 49ers can put together a trade package the Steelers would want, and Pittsburgh also gets to send Bell out of the AFC.
Since taking the job in San Francisco, Lynch has been one of the most aggressive GMs in the league when it comes to making calls on trades—this is the guy who tried trading for Tom Brady, after all. It wouldn't be a surprise if the 49ers are making calls on Bell, but it would be a surprise if they actually traded for him.
Andrew Luck needs help.
Le'Veon Bell might not play offensive line, but he does bring a skill set that scares defensive coordinators. Because Bell is the NFL's best dual-threat running back, he'll keep linebackers and safeties honest. That will give Luck more time in the pocket and another valuable option in the passing game. That's a win for Luck and the Colts.
You might be thinking this feels a lot like the Colts trading for Trent Richardson after his impressive rookie season with the Browns. That move backfired, badly, and Luck has been without a difference-maker at running back since then. Bell is not Richardson, which should be obvious. There's no reason to think Bell's talent would disappear if he were to move to Indianapolis.
Would general manager Chris Ballard make this kind of move?
I think so. Ballard, who spent time in Kansas City before taking the job running the Colts, isn't afraid to be aggressive to improve his team. The Colts have an extra second-rounder after trading back with the New York Jets in the 2018 draft, which could give him the ammunition to get Bell without losing too many valuable early-round picks needed to keep rebuilding the roster.
Desperation breeds ingenuity. Bill O'Brien and the 0-3 Houston Texans are desperate.
Much like Andrew Luck, quarterback Deshaun Watson needs a running mate that can keep defenses from loading up to stop him. This season, we haven't seen the Watson who took the NFL by storm for the first eight weeks of his rookie campaign before suffering an ACL injury that cost him the remainder of the season.
Adding Bell might help give the Texans a balance offensively that is missing. It might also help save O'Brien's job if his seat is as warm as it seems right now.
The biggest question with the Texans is if the offensive line can open holes for Bell. The front five have struggled to keep Watson protected and aren't opening many holes for starting back Lamar Miller. Bell is a more decisive runner and has much better agility in the open field, but would trading for him be the NFL equivalent of shoving a square peg into a round hole?
Houston should still be considered a favorite to call about Bell's availability because of the team's sluggish start and the pressure to win now.
New York Jets
The New York Jets have a good running back on the roster in Isaiah Crowell and they're not trying to load up the roster for a Super Bowl run this season, but they should still be considered contenders in the Le'Veon Bell sweepstakes.
Mike Maccagnan has done a great job turning over the roster since becoming general manager in 2015. This year's version of the Jets are tough, improving, young and inexpensive. That allows them to go after a Le'Veon Bell type and lock him up long-term.
If the window to make a run for the Jets is within Sam Darnold's rookie deal, the team has four years left after 2018 to make a strong push in free agency. Bell, who turned 26 years old this year, can reasonably be expected to last another four years at his current rate of production. That times up perfectly with the Jets' window to be aggressive before having to lock up players like Darnold and Jamal Adams to second contracts.
Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reported the Jets have expressed interest in trading for Bell, so there's already some smoke surrounding the move.
This would be the most aggressive move the Jets' front office has made after attempts to sign Kirk Cousins and trade for Khalil Mack didn't reach a happy conclusion. It's the kind of move that would put them closer to contention in what's been a wild AFC East through the first three weeks of the season.